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Josh Lief is out to prove there’s room for the blues in Richmond’s flourishing music scene 

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Scott ELmquist

On a Saturday morning two years ago, a Facebook post caught Josh Lief's eye. "Does anyone have a Les Paul I can borrow for recording?" Lief noticed the query was written by Andrew Trongone of the Trongone Band, whom he'd met at a blues show several years prior. People were chiming in, offering garage-band-grade guitars. But Lief had a couple of guitars from the '60s and vintage amps to boot.

"Andrew, I have the Les Paul you want," he quickly wrote back.

That charitable gesture led to Lief's second act, musically speaking. Previously Lief was part of Interstate, a band that opened for large outfits like Steppenwolf in the '80s. But he got burned out from residencies at clubs, and later turned to law, "thinking I could change the world that way." Yet he's continued to write all these years. When Trongone had him bring the gear to Montrose Studios, Lief got his groove back.

"The first time I walked in there, I felt this vibe," Lief says. "It was just a spontaneous feeling watching [engineer Adrian Olsen] work with the Trongones. Right then and there, I booked time to record a few songs."

Lief's debut last year, "Redemption," featured swaggering songs that probably would've felt at home on Richmond's K-95 Country, if it weren't for his upper-register vocals reminiscent of Neil Young. That's why it's interesting to hear Lief take things slower and more bluesy, while attempting some comparatively deeper vocals on his sophomore album, "Love in Disguise."

"I have a pretty wide range," Lief says. "Sure, there are some blues enthusiasts who tell me I'm not bluesy enough. To me, Cream was blues, and so was Jimi Hendrix. But blues is everywhere. A lot of this new country stuff is blues-based. Even in some new rock songs, that blues progression continues to work its way in."

Already the album is getting frequent play from Wildman Steve, a popular Internet radio personality based in Alabama. Local director Daniel Bagbey stepped forward to shoot a music video for the title track, too. So is there room for new blues, even the rock-laced kind, in Richmond's flourishing music scene? John Porter, host of "Time for the Blues" on WCVE, says "there are only a handful of places a lot of [blues musicians] can play, so it's hard for them to really grow that audience."

"Josh doesn't actively seek out the limelight," Porter adds. "I get the feeling from Josh that he's lived a lot of blues. Some people you kind of get the feeling they're just going through the motions."

In the indie rock scene at least, blues was an ascendant influence in the early 2000s, but has taken a back seat now, with folk and Americana stealing the show. When a rising star like Angel Olsen does slip in a hint of blues, critics are quick to test for signs of authenticity. Similar to Porter's observation, Paste Magazine wrote last year that, "Like a great blues singer, [Angel] Olsen brings an arresting urgency to familiar situations where others might resort to hackneyed sentimentality." Lief says this opportunity to distinguish himself is a double-edged sword, especially for an old-school musician looking to get back in the game.

"It's been a great journey and I want to keep going," says Lief on a cool Monday afternoon, musing about plans for a tour and another album. "There's been a huge democratization of music, I call it. Really good people are doing it at home and getting it on iTunes. With Wildman Steve out in Alabama, he clearly identified with my first record. It's hard to find people like that. I'm hoping a major radio push is about to happen. My mailings are going out tomorrow. I'm cautiously optimistic."

Going into this second effort, Lief imagined he'd come out with an EP. Instead, thanks to some riffs laid down by members of the Trongone Band and input from engineer Adrian Olsen, Lief says he found a formula that "doesn't make for perfect music, but interesting music."

"Having the right person to work with was, for me, the key piece I'd never found. Through helping Andrew, I found that piece." S

Josh Lief's album release show will be at the Hof on Friday, Oct. 26, at 7 p.m.

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